Lessons In Life, and Love, From A Revolution

We live in history all the time, of course, but most of us have never seen history like this. It already feels like many months since a young Tunisian graduate who couldn't get a job, or scrape a living, or even sell a few vegetables, because no one would give him a permit for a stall, set himself on fire and sparked a revolution. It is, in fact, only two: two months and 11 days. In that time, the world, or some of the world, has changed.

We can't know what went through Mohamed Bouazizi's head as he doused himself in petrol, lit a match and watched the flames lick over his skin, and through his flesh, and bones, and sinews, or if there was a moment when he wanted to turn the clock back. We can only know that when he took that can of petrol, and grabbed that match, he couldn't see the point in staying alive. He couldn't know - couldn't even have begun to imagine - that less than a month later, the government that was making his life impossible would have gone, and a month after that, the government of Egypt. He couldn't know that other young men, in Tunisia, and Algeria, and Mauritania, and Egypt, would have also turned the fire in their hearts into fire in their flesh, and that hundreds of thousands of others would take to the streets, and stay there.

Bouazizi was the first man to die in a protest that became a revolution that still has no name. It's impossible to know how many have followed. But the others, or at least the ones who didn't douse themselves in petrol, didn't die because they wanted to become martyrs. They didn't want to die, and they didn't want to fight, and they didn't, until it was a choice of one life or another, want anyone else to die. What they wanted was something that we in the West take as much for granted as the water in our taps: the right to choose their leaders.

Even in weeks, and from the vantage point of a western TV or laptop, the revolutions have blurred into each other. Here are people, dark-haired and dark-eyed, waving placards and shouting. The men are in jeans and anoraks. The women are in headscarves. The shops look the same. The streets look the same. The squares look the same. One day it's Tunis. The next it's Algiers. Then it's Sana'a, or Benghazi, or Cairo. But certain details stand out: the water stalls, and tea stands, and tents in Tahrir Square and, later, the makeshift hospitals; the "centre for artists", and the seminars on constitutional monarchy, in Pearl Square; the children whose faces have been painted in the colours of their country's flag.

These are people who are happy to protest with poetry, and political speeches, and painting. These are people so well-mannered that when their revolution is over, they're happy to mend the broken paving stones, and sweep the streets. But these are people who are also ready to die for their freedom.

It has been hard enough to hear about people you've never met, sometimes in countries you've never been to, who have lost their fear, and stood their ground, and paid for it. It's been hard to hear stories of how they walked down a street, and were bludgeoned to death by a government-sponsored thug, or had their face beaten to a pulp by a so-called policeman, or their brains blown to pieces by a mercenary.

It's been hard to watch footage of young men weeping over the bodies of their friends, and nurses, sickened by the human carnage they're meant to care for, stamping on pictures of their leaders, and doctors surrounded by broken bodies they can't mend. It's been hard to hear from people who know that if they leave their home, and cross a street, to stand in a square, just stand in a square, they may well never come back.

I don't know how you pick up the pieces of your life when someone you love doesn't come back, or how you live with the knowledge that they may have died in vain. I don't know how you get up every morning, knowing that you have no power to change or shape the rules, and laws, you have to live by. Or how you work, if you're lucky enough to work, knowing that whatever you pay in tax will be spent on luxuries for your leaders.

But I do know this. I know that at a time when the idea of any kind of sacrifice seems hopelessly outmoded, and when the word "martyr" is used of stupid young men who dream of virgins and glory, and are prepared to slaughter innocent people for both, these men and women, who shrugged off their fear, and chose to face whatever would follow, have made me proud to share the air they breathe.

If I believed in prayer, I would pray for their just cause. Since I don't, I can only offer a poem. I didn't write it (I can't write poems) and the poet who did doesn't want to be named:

"Sometimes things don't go, after all,/ from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel/ faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,// Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.// A people sometimes will step back from war,/ elect an honest man, decide they care/ enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor./ Some men become what they were born for.// Sometimes our best efforts do not go/ amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to./ The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow/ that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you."